“Libertarian populism” = Ayn Rand in disguise

All the re-brands and disguises in the world cannot obscure what this "new" ideology is really about

Topics: Libertarianism, Populism, libertarian populism, Republicans, Conservatives, Rand Paul, Gold Standard, Labor, Income Tax, Ayn Rand,

"Libertarian populism" = Ayn Rand in disguiseRand Paul, Ted Cruz (Credit: AP/Timothy D. Easley/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Question: What is a libertarian populist? Answer: A libertarian in disguise.

That is my conclusion, after perusing much of the recent discussion of whether a new “libertarian populism” (or “populist libertarianism”) could prove to be a winning formula for the exhausted and discredited American right.

At first glance, creating a common ideology to unite the libertarian and populist wings of today’s right must be an appealing idea for GOP strategists. But to succeed, both parents would have to contribute to the genetic makeup of the libertarian populist baby. The leading advocates of libertarian populism, however, look very much like run-of-the-mill libertarians to me.

Ben Domenech, for example, tries to define libertarian populism by arguing that it takes “a few of its aims from the Rand Paul approach – a balanced budget amendment, flatter and simpler taxes, and more – but there is also a stronger focus on issues which cut across party lines, including reform of higher education, prison and justice systems, civil liberty protections, and an assault on D.C. cronyism from green energy to Big Banks.” But all of this is standard-issue libertarianism, including libertarian critiques of “prison and justice systems” and “civil liberty protections.” Nothing new here, folks, move along.

What Domenech and others mean by “populist” appears to be “popular.” They want a popular libertarianism, a libertarianism that majorities of Americans might vote for, not a movement that has anything to do with actual historic populism in the United States, which has generally been, to coin a phrase, illibertarian.

Consider the 1892 platform of the original populists, the People’s Party:

The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench.

The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.

Here is Domenech one hundred and twenty-one years later, in 2013, quoting Robert Tracinski:

It reminds me of an odd challenge from Michael Lind at Salon, who argues that libertarianism is not a credible political philosophy because we can’t name any countries that have adopted it. It is a challenge that is not quite honest (Lind rejects on ad hoc grounds a number of examples of countries with much smaller governments) and also astonishingly ignorant of history. The libertarian utopia, or the closest we’ve come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can’t get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare.

The United States of the late nineteenth century, which according to Domenech was “[t]he libertarian utopia, or the closest we’ve come to it,” was considered a dystopian nightmare by the original populists at the time—“a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.”

If they really are inspired by the American populist legacy, and are not just opportunists trying to rebrand libertarian ideology, then self-described libertarian populists should be able to point to at least to some elements of the populism of a hundred years ago that still inspire them.

Bimetallism? Free silver? Apparently not. As Domenech writes, the America of William Jennings Bryan and the Populists “was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can’t get more libertarian than that.”

Okay, today’s libertarian populists don’t favor debtor-friendly inflation (the real motive for support of bimetallism). Do libertarian populists agree with the original populists in supporting unions? According to the People’s Party platform, “The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection…”

What? What’s that you say? Libertarian populists aren’t for labor unions?

Well, how about restricting immigration that might reduce the wages of some American workers, another complaint of the original Populists—“imported pauperized labor beats down their wages….”

Domenech writes:

Here the populists and the libertarians are often diametrically opposed, particularly on aspects such as E-Verify. The libertarian priority is meeting market needs: people should be able to hire whoever they want, for whatever purpose they want, at whatever price they agree upon. The populist priority is security and balancing against a workforce which undercuts their jobs. A proposal which sought to meet both their demands would predicate any reforms to the immigration system on completing a fence along the border, whether such a step would work or not. [emphasis added]

Shorter Ben Domenech: Fake out the gullible populists with a possibly unworkable fence, while giving the open-borders libertarians what they want: unrestricted immigration of cheap labor to the U.S. This kind of “libertarian populism” looks very much like a combination of real libertarianism and fake populism.

Point Three of the People’s Party platform was a progressive income tax: “We demand a graduated income tax.” Sorry, populists—if Ben Domenech is an authoritative spokesman for libertarian populism, you can’t have that one, either. Remember, according to Domenech:

The libertarian utopia, or the closest we’ve come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank.

The only issue on which today’s self-described libertarian populists and the original populists of yesteryear would seem to agree is opposition to “crony capitalism”—rent-seeking by corporations in cahoots with corrupt government officials and institutions. Indeed, a denunciation of what is nowadays called crony capitalism is part of the populist platform:

From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.

But non-hyphenated libertarians routinely defend themselves against the claim that they are shills for corporations, by stating their opposition to crony capitalism and corporate welfare, for libertarian rather than populist reasons.

Besides, for the most part the original American populists proposed replacing what they believed to be corrupt public-private schemes with purely governmental agencies run by career civil servants. William Jennings Bryan, for example, proposed the nationalization of railroad trunk lines by the federal government. On August 29, 1919, Bryan told the House Commerce Committee: “If I had to choose between the concentration of all this power in New York in the hands of railway magnates and the centralization of all this power in the hands of government officials, I would without a moment’s hesitation prefer to risk concentration in the hands of public officials…. And now, repeating again that if I had to choose between this centralization in the hands of public officials and the kind of centralization the railroad magnates want in their hands in New York, I would infinitely prefer to take my chances on the Government officials in Washington.”

I have to admit that I find the idea of a political-intellectual heir to both William Jennings Bryan and Ayn Rand tantalizing. Undoubtedly their offspring would be incredibly long-winded and preternaturally argumentative.

Alas, all the talk of “libertarian populism” to the contrary, such a mésalliance has not taken place. Plutocracy’s La Pasionaria has not even met the Boy Orator of the Platter, much less borne his child. She has merely dressed up for Halloween.

But you can put Ayn Rand in overalls and hand her a pitchfork, and that doesn’t make her a libertarian populist.

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...